Courageous Woman: Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001)
by Julianne Wiley (a.k.a. Juli Loesch)
In the fall of 1939, shortly after Great Britain declared war on Germany, the Royal Air Force was openly promoting a counter-city bombing strategy against Germany. They were preparing to carpet bomb entire cities. Their first target in each city would be the city water-pumping stations, and then they would wipe out, not just the military assets, but all its civilian inhabitants. The cities of Dresden, Cologne, and Hamburg were to be bombed in this way. Elizabeth Anscombe and a fellow student, barely out of their teens, wrote, printed, and started distributing a brief, powerful essay entitled “The Justice of the Present War Examined.” Not on the basis of pacifism, but by the application of traditional Just War principles, she argued that the British government’s plan to incinerate large numbers of civilians by means of indiscriminate obliteration bombing was not an act of Just War but an act of murder.
But before Anscombe’s essay could be widely disseminated, her own bishop, the Bishop of Birmingham, told her to withdraw it from publication. He said it was not the job of undergraduates to judge their nation’s military policy, and that she had a lot of learning to do before she could make complex judgments. She agreed that she had much learning to do, and she withdrew the pamphlet. But it is her words, rather than those of her bishop, which remain in our memory and were later echoed by the Second Vatican Council.
Anscombe’s responsibilities as a philosophy professor at Oxford in the 1950s did not include teaching ethics, which was covered by her friend Philippa Foot. But at one point Foot took a sabbatical and asked Anscombe to fill in for her. When Anscombe started to organize her thoughts by reading the usual texts of modern moral philosophy she was flabbergasted.
Despite the differences between them, all the 20th century authors she encountered shared one thing in common: they had no moral absolutes. None. There were no actions that could be ruled out if you were aiming at a good enough result. Not rape, not torture, not abortion, not murder. They said it could all be justified by circumstances. And this was an absolute break with 20 centuries of Western Civilization, with its basis in Judeo-Christian moral teaching, and even a break from the teachings of Aristotle and the greats of pagan Greek and Roman civilization.
Anscombe knew this was wrong. Two years previously, in 1956, Oxford University had decided to grant an honorary degree to Harry Truman, who, as President of the United States, had been responsible for the deliberate massacre of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She contested this honorary degree, but she was told that she was the only one who found it objectionable. She forced a vote, but only four faculty members were willing to say that a man who authorized the deliberate killing of innocent human beings ought not to be given public honors.
Anscombe’s reflections on moral absolutes developed into her 1958 paper “On Modern Moral Philosophy.” She boldly challenged the sheer relativism of almost all 20th century moral philosophers. Standing practically alone against the entire academic philosophical establishment, she defined, described, and pulled apart “consequentialism,” the view that there are no acts, no matter how evil, which cannot be justified if one is aiming for good consequences.
Although Oxford was still, in the 1960s, a place of considerable outward conventionality, it was inwardly shaken by the moral confusion of the Sexual Revolution. Undergraduate women often got pregnant, but never had babies, if you catch my meaning.
Once Professor Anscombe was sought out by a young woman who was pregnant by a professor 30 years older than she. This young student was quite upset and unsure what to do about it. She confided that this professor, the father of the baby, thought abortion would be the obvious solution. “And why does he think that?” asked Anscombe. The girl replied, ‘Well, the first problem is, he doesn’t entirely accept the full humanity of the un-born.” “No,” Anscombe shot back, “His first problem is that he doesn’t even accept the full humanity of the undergraduate.”
Although Anscombe’s stand against the atomic bomb had been widely reported at the time, when she decided to personally and nonviolently intervene to stop the dismemberment of living babies, the coverage was practically zero. A newspaper photograph that her family cherishes shows her being hauled away from the abortion clinic doorway by two policemen, but she is not even identified in the caption or in the article. This, despite the fact that at the time she was arguably the world’s most prominent living philosopher.
In 1970, Elizabeth Anscombe was appointed to the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge. She spent the next 10 years doing more original work in philosophy, writing, speaking, and striving to empower women – particularly young women – with the intellectual strength to resist conformism, to seek and love the truth, and to accept no substitutes.
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